Jade, civil war and inequality: lessons from Myanmar’s latest mining accident

Photo: Yin_Min_Tun / CC BY-SA

Another deadly jade mining accident in northern Myanmar shows the consequences of inequality in the country and how resource extraction and land conflicts drive civil war.


This article is the first of two covering the recent jade mining accident in Myanmar that killed over 170 people. Read the second piece here.

Last Thursday (July 2), a landslide at a jade mine in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state killed over 170 people. Most were miners trying to make a living, picking through mountains of waste rock left behind by mining companies.

The incident is the latest in the story of fatal and preventable accidents alongside one of the most profitable mining industries in the world. Incidents at Hpakant since January 2015 alone have now killed around 1,000 people, based on one tally from Dave Petley at the University of Sheffield.

Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said after the accident that it was deadly in part due to joblessness—that the workers’ lives could have been saved if they had better opportunities. While this is true, a closer look at the factors driving people to work in high-risk conditions illustrates the toll of wealth inequality in Myanmar.

The Hpakant area is the center of the global jade trade, where mining companies tied to the government and military extract 70% of the world’s high quality jade. The mining is worth as much as US$31 billion in a year by one estimate, but northern Myanmar’s residents see few benefits.

“Even though we hear that a billion dollars worth of jade is mined, we have no right to see or to touch it,” a local woman in Kachin told Global Witness during one of their investigations of the industry.

The disaster in Hpakant also shows why little will change as the country turns towards an election in November. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has so far been unable to curb accidents in Hpakant and unwilling to grant ethnic groups the rights to manage their own natural resources and land.

Cleaning up Hpakant’s jade mines isn’t part of the NLD platform—they’ve got a constitution they’re trying to amend, among other issues. Though many ethnic political parties are running their own candidates, including in Kachin State, it’s impossible for them to gain the seats they would need in Parliament to make a difference, even by their own estimation.

Regulations mean little in Kachin

The accident took place at the Kyaukmyet Shwe mining site and was reportedly caused by heavy rains that destabilized a hillside. The site, like many jade mines, was a mountain 20 years ago but has been an open pit for years, its walls threatening to cave in, according to a local leader with the NLD.

Local officials issued warnings on June 20 that heavy rains in the area could trigger landslides, according to U Ohn Win, head of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Conservation (MONREC).

The 170-plus miners who were killed last week worked in informal mining, which is illegal in the area, but local residents say most mining regulations are never enforced at the site. The military has since fired two officers involved in security in Hpakant, saying they were “responsible for reporting any trespassing in this restricted area.”

But mining companies and jade traders often ignore regulations, exposing workers to deadly risks. “Although there are government orders on the systematic piling of the waste soil and other regulations, they are not implemented properly,” Ko Naung Latt, director of environmental group Green Land, told The Irrawaddy.

When accidents happen, there is little accountability. After an accident in Hpakant last May killed 55 people, MONREC investigated the companies involved and found they were not at fault.

“They were just doing their work and the instability of the earth happened,” Aung Nyunt Thein, managing director of the Myanmar Gems Enterprise at MONREC, told Reuters at the time.

When mining company workers are injured or killed in an accident, the company may pay compensation to employees or their families. There is no compensation when informal workers are killed.

Mining accidents aren’t on the agenda for the 2020 election

Following last week’s accident, the government formed a team to investigate. They visited the area and instructed local officials to put up signs, notice boards and fences, according to the Kachin state minister for natural resources.

Surprisingly—or not—the accident hasn’t impacted political parties’ platforms for the upcoming election. The NLD has done little to address issues in the jade industry and this isn’t likely to change.

“Five years after taking office and pledging to reform the corrupt sector, the National League for Democracy (NLD) has yet to implement desperately needed reforms,” Global Witness said in a statement last week. “Neither a promised new gemstone law, passed by parliament in 2019, nor a gemstone policy that has been in production for several years have yet been implemented.”

The NLD also hasn’t acknowledged that the situation in Hpakant is tied fundamentally to resource federalism—the idea that Myanmar’s ethnic communities should control their own natural resources. As on many fronts, it appears Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is afraid to rock the boat, uninterested in a more equitable distribution of the benefits from Myanmar’s jade.

As Khine Win wrote, “The majority in the country are poor while almost all the nation’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small minority who fear they will be forced to redistribute their wealth through higher taxes and expropriations at a grand scale if they lose power.”

Local Kachin parties do offer a chance at reform, though they can’t win enough constituencies to make an impact. In 2018, six major Kachin parties came together and formed the Kachin State People’s Party, with the explicit goal of taking on the NLD.

The NLD won more than 50% of seats in the Kachin parliament in 2015, but many political analysts in Myanmar say this won’t be the case in 2020. A greater Kachin presence in the state and Union parliaments would at least give local communities a platform to raise issues in Hpakant and advocate for resource federalism more broadly.

There is always a desire to pathologize catastrophes like those in Hpakant, especially among people who hold the power to prevent them. “Hpakant is not normal,” said Aung Nyunt Thein of Myanmar Gems Enterprise, speaking with Reuters.

In some ways, this claim is more aspiration than fact. Hpakant reflects the broader impacts of inequality in Myanmar. The consequences of the jade industry—deadly accidents, resource conflicts, a marginalized ethnic state pushed to violence—are repeated across the country.

Look out for the second part of our coverage on jade in Myanmar later this week.

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